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What Self-Care Isn’t: Lessons From a Fictional Horse

Self-care: it’s one of the internet’s current obsessions and for good reason. Times are complicated, and the whole world seems stressed. A scroll through social media will turn up suggestions about taking time to binge-watch shows, stock images of ridiculously calm yogis, and ads for fancy spas. But self-care is much broader (and more critical) than self-indulgence or pampering. Please allow me to take you on a metaphorical journey to explain why.

As a kid, I was obsessed with a fictional book series called The Black Stallion, about a boy who befriends a fast-yet-ornery horse. After a series of misadventures involving a deserted island, he becomes an owner and jockey of the horse – and the horse becomes his whole life. Everything revolves around keeping the horse in top shape; if the horse is physically unfit or not in high spirits, the horse won’t race well, and that spells trouble for our young hero.

Now imagine that you have a racehorse, who is both your best friend and your meal ticket. You’d want to ensure the bedding was appropriate, the shoes were a proper fit, and the barn was a suitable temperature. You’d warm up that horse before a big run and cool it down afterward. You’d establish a careful training regimen and watch the results. You’d inspect the horse daily for signs of injury or illness. If the horse had run too many races recently and were psychologically ‘off,’ you’d give it a break. If travel was stressful for the horse, you’d find a way to provide comfort by acquiring a companion animal. By now, I assume that my metaphor is getting pretty heavy-handed, so I’ll just say it: you’re your own racehorse.

Now answer me this: would you treat that racehorse as you treat yourself?

Your most precious resource in life is yourself. Your body and mind are how you get everything done… literally everything. Your income, responsibilities, impact on the world, and ability to care for others stem from the care you give yourself. Conversely, failing to care for yourself limits your ability to get stuff done and to get stuff done well. This includes everything from work to creativity to enjoying and appreciating your life.

Self-Care Isn’t a Frivolous Luxury

Some of us treat ourselves less like a prized racehorse and more like a poor coal pony. We drive ourselves hard, and as long as we can limp along, we say, “good enough.” We feel guilty pampering ourselves when we could be getting something done… or worse yet, we are ashamed of the times we’ve let people down, so we think we don’t deserve anything that feels like pampering. We run ourselves into the ground without analyzing whether we’d actually get more done if we could just recenter, rest, and start fresh. How often have I pushed myself to keep trying, keep working, and keep going, even though I’ve stopped making progress? If I were to take a break and get some sleep, I’d have a clearer head and a better perspective to solve the problem. Yet instead, I push myself harder and harder, as if pure determination will restore my energy levels.

Self-Care Isn’t Always a Treat

Some of us have burned ourselves out and treated ourselves as pets. Having swung too hard to one extreme, we view self-care as a chance to totally shut down, zone out, or hide from the world. Those can absolutely be restorative tactics if you’re resting up. But you have to be aware: are you healing, or are you avoiding the issues? We may find ourselves under-stimulated and under-challenged, and our energy doesn’t increase no matter how much rest we get. We might numb our feelings of overwhelm or uncertainty by indulging in activities that feel good at the moment but aren’t actually building us up to racing shape again. For me, this looks like playing games on my phone. Doing it for a half-hour between meetings to give my mind time to wander is restorative. If I do it all day while hiding under the covers, I find that I’m no more ready to face the world than before. I would have been better served by taking the day to go for a hike in the woods, taking the day as a planning day, or working up a good sweat with a dance session to clear out my brain fog.

Ultimately, the trick is to start learning what will get you back to a healthy, balanced self because that’s when you can be at your best. If you’re exhausted, maybe instead of buying a hazelnut latte, you could look at your sleep routine. If you’re scattered and hurried in the morning, then maybe that same latte will remind you to breathe deeply and re-ground yourself. The best question you can ask when considering self-care is this: what’s the more profound need I have here, and how can I take care of that need? Learn to recognize what actually helps you be more rested, energized, passionate, and better.

Want to be a creative genius, a wise parent, or a brilliant colleague? Then you need your horse in top racing shape. Let go of your attachment to yourself, and think about your racehorse, not as a coal pony or a pet, but as a magnificent creature who can do incredible things… so long as it’s cared for.

Mike Legett

ADHD Coach and Life Coach, Executive Skills Coach